*This article I wrote about gender reassignments was published in Pelican magazine, August 2009 – but not a whole lot has changed since then, so here it is again.
About a month ago, a man named Thomas Beatie (dubbed ‘the Pregnant Man’ by the media) gave birth to his baby daughter in the USA. This story sparked a highly intriguing headline: ‘Man Gives Birth’. Bad news for women – giving birth was the one thing we could claim over the male gender. Men get higher salaries, the Presidential candidacy, and standing up while they pee – and now, apparently, they can get pregnant as well. But … is Thomas Beatie really a man? He was born a woman, then went through a gender reassignment and had his gender legally changed to male. However, he kept his female reproductive organs. So, at least in a biological sense, it was a female giving birth. Yet Beatie is legally a man. Confused much?
In an article that Beatie wrote for an American newspaper, he repeatedly affirmed that throughout the pregnancy his ‘gender identity as male [was] constant’. I find it interesting that a transgender person such as Beatie can so emphatically claim a fixed gender identity. What defines the male gender? Beatie has had his female breasts removed, and has taken testosterone to grow facial hair, but kept his female reproductive organs. So does this mean that every woman of flat chest and hairy upper lip is actually teetering on the edge of the male gender? Or, that any man who cannot grow a full beard is not a man? (I’m sure there are numerous Facebook groups with opinions on that.) Gender is not governed by indisputable boundaries, not for anyone, and the issue of gender identity can become confusing when you are trying to shoehorn each unique individual into one of two categories. Philosopher Judith Butler stated that the body cannot serve as a foundation for gender definition; there are simply too many different kinds of bodies for us to categorize all of them into ‘male’ or ‘female’. When you consider gender as a fluid concept, it becomes easier to accept a wider range of gender identities.
In Oregon, where Thomas Beatie lives, he is legally recognised as a man. Despite this, he reportedly still has trouble convincing some of his neighbours to recognise this. However, the media coverage of the Beatie story has consistently referred to him in male pronouns. Since the story came to the media’s attention, even the most sceptical headlines said ‘Man Claims To Be Pregnant,’ instead of ‘Pregnant Woman Claims To Be A Man’. Looking closer to home, how does our own state treat its transgender community? If Thomas Beatie were a Western Australian and had delivered his baby in this state, would the papers have announced ‘Man Gives Birth’, or would WA have denied Beatie’s status as a man? It is true that in the last decade WA has radically improved its legislation with regards to the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community. However, many of WA’s transgender residents are still stranded in legal limbo. It all comes down to the question of defining gender, at least in terms of the law. Under the Gender Reassignment Act 2000, a person hoping to apply for a recognition of gender change must have taken on the ‘characteristics’ of their adopted gender. The Act defines gender characteristics as ‘the physical characteristics by virtue of which a person is identified as male or female.’ Whether this extends to include such physical traits as muscle size or hair length is not specified; in fact, the Act’s definitions are extremely vague. At one point in Australian history, it was commonly considered a male characteristic to wear trousers. That social viewpoint has clearly changed; what else could change? Who decides which characteristics belong to each gender?
In 2006, New York City proposed a new rule, to allow people to legally change their gender without medical alteration or surgery. The intent of the new legislation was to let people decide for themselves which gender they are. In WA, however, in order to legally change your gender, you must have undergone ‘a medical or surgical procedure … to alter the genitals and other gender characteristics of a person.’ Gender reassignment procedures can be extremely expensive and painful, and are not within everyone’s means. Some transgender people don’t view surgical alterations as necessary. Is gender, therefore, a personal choice or governed by our physiology? If it were the latter, where would that leave Thomas Beatie?
So far, in this article, I have used the word ‘gender’ twenty-four times. Often, when you have used a word so often within a short space of time, it begins to lose its meaning. Perhaps gender is beginning to lose its meaning and its importance – after all, why are we so concerned with gender? In making it difficult for people to change their gender, what is our society so jealously guarding? For many people, an ideal world would consist of men and women having equal opportunities and an end to gender discrimination. For decades, activist groups have been fighting for this very cause. In practicality, gender discrimination still occurs in Australia. For example, women in the army or navy are not permitted to fight in direct combat, on the basis that their physiology is inherently weaker. Where do transgender people fit into this? Could a man who was born a woman fight in combat?
If everyone was considered equal regardless of their gender, it wouldn’t matter which gender we claimed. Thomas Beatie is a man who wanted to have a baby, so he did. As Beatie said himself, ‘Wanting to have a biological child is neither a male nor female desire, but a human desire.’ While Beatie’s pregnancy may not quite be a biology-defying miracle (some women may have been thinking, ‘Damn, so I can’t get my man to go through labour for me, after all’), his story’s worldwide exposure has shown that our society’s view on gender is gradually broadening. And that, in itself, is a miracle.